From History to Memory

A Wissenschaftskolleg Focus Group’s Views of a West African Family – After Six Months Work

By Carola Lentz, Isidore Lobnibe, and Stanislas Meda

Our focus group’s work at the Wissenschaftskolleg has shifted over the past months from trying to write a book and make a documentary film on the history of an extended West African family to exploring a polyphonous process of remembering. As we explained in our first blogpost, our 2017-18 Wissenschaftskolleg focus group comprised three scholars: Isidore Lobnibe, a Ghanaian anthropologist, teaching at Western Oregon University, US; Stanislas Meda, a filmmaker, scholar of media studies and retired State Secretary of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Burkina Faso; and Carola Lentz, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Mainz, Germany. However, we were not only scholars working together on the history of African families, but also members of the particular extended family whose politics of memory and belonging we study.

The focus group members in the Wissenschaftskolleg’s main building, clad in Dagara traditional smocks. From left to right: Carola Lentz, Isidore Lobnibe, Stanislas Meda. January 2018 © Maurice Weiss/OSTKREUZ

The first blog on the focus group’s work presented excerpts from an interview that Manuela Lenzen conducted with us in January, during the early stages of our work at the Wissenschaftskolleg. A few weeks before speaking with Manuela Lenzen, we had also talked with the Wissenschaftskolleg’s academic coordinator Daniel Schönpflug and one of our co-Fellows, the anthropologist Alice von Bieberstein, about our understandings of “family”, our work plans and the challenges that we saw lying ahead of us. A good six months later, at the end of June, we met again with Daniel and Alice. We talked with them about the evolution of our project, about our discoveries and surprises, but also about the continuity of some of our ideas that held up. In the course of our time at the Wissenschaftskolleg, all of us had travelled for brief stays to Burkina Faso and Ghana, and we hosted some of our family members in Berlin—and so an important topic of our conversation with Daniel and Alice was also the question how the extended family reacted to our project and what we thought about the future impact of our work in Berlin on the family. The following presents some excerpts from our conversation.


Daniel Schönpflug: To start off the discussion, we would like to ask you to take a look back. Could you give us an idea of the temporal development of the project? Have there been changes or caesuras?

Isidore Lobnibe: One of the landmarks that we see in respect of the book is how we shifted the conceptual framework from trying to write a family history to discussing the history of remembering, how remembering the family history and memory making have evolved. This allows us to avoid claiming to be authoritative historians of the family and to avoid becoming mired in the politics of the family.

Stanislas Meda: At the beginning, I was puzzled, pulled between making something like a documentary and introducing some element of fiction focused on Yob, our family’s ancestor. But as time passed, when I discussed with some of our guests, the Fellows in the Colloquium and colleagues at the Free University of Berlin, I came to understand that it could be a kind of film essay, trying to see how I can allow different people of the family to also give their voice. I know that using different voices from our fathers, that is, the sons of Yob, and voices from the women and the children, the youngsters, will enrich the film.

On the Wissenschaftskolleg welcome boat tour through Berlin, September 2017. From left to right: Stanislas Meda, Carola Lentz, Isidore Lobnibe. © C. Lentz

Carola Lentz: Working with our focus group was, for me, one year of intensive fieldwork. Every time we had a focus group meeting or met informally, there was more information on the family history, on conflicts, tensions, perspectives, futures. Whenever we had a guest from outside, just like the literature we read, this triggered reflections about “Okay, how does this work out in our family? What can we learn from this literature in order to interpret what happened in our case?” And vice versa, how is our case speaking to this literature? The big shift, and a liberating one, was indeed our new focus on the family’s politics of remembering. Originally, this was intended as one chapter, but then it occurred to me that this could make the framework for the entire book. In terms of work experience, it was interesting how the internal exchanges in the focus group and inputs from outside, be it literature or be it persons with whom we discussed, came together. And then, of course, there has been a lot of joking. I mean we have been describing our roles as…

Isidore: …the traditionalist…

Carola: …the traditionalist, the myth maker… And I am the constructivist (laughter). But it is not as clear-cut as that. I am surprised to hear that you [Stan] are also opening up to the constructivist perspective now…

Alice von Bieberstein: Now that you raise the question of memory… memory has been extensively discussed, theorised, conceptualised, within anthropology and beyond. It is a vast field and there are so many different angles and approaches and conceptualisations. I would be interested to hear more about your approach to memory.

Carola: Well, we do not invent a completely new approach to memory studies, and I do not even think that is possible. We are rather eclectic in drawing inspiration from a number of works. The uniqueness of our work is, I think, this combination of inside and outside perspectives. We are part of the memory making process, and we are reflecting on the ways in which we are part of that. Secondly, by looking at one extended family, we can examine the intersections and contestations between different genres and media of memory. So we are looking at narratives, but also at objects. One chapter will focus on the boxes that labour migrants brought with objects from the South, like hoes, cloth, bicycles, and how these objects then became the centre of narratives and episodes of the family repertoire of memories. Then we are looking at songs. We are also looking at the most recent formalisation of family reunions for commemorating the family history. We study public memory like sermons, speechifying during anniversaries etc. And we are looking at childhood memories and intimate gossiping in the courtyard. We are looking at written forms of memory that emerge, at the videos that Stan has filmed since the 1990s and at photography. So this is the second point: we are bringing this together in one book. And then, thirdly, there is no single study of remembering in an African family. It does not exist, particularly not with a longue durée perspective. Our longue durée is thirty years plus Isidore’s childhood memory, plus Stan’s childhood memory. So we are looking at forty, fifty years of remembering, and we reconstruct some earlier ways of how the family might have remembered sixty or seventy years ago…

Isidore: … from the forms of memory we collected in the 1980s of the so-called colonial generation. Because they kind of represent the earlier forms of memories, their narratives, strategies and practices that were common with this non-literate society. So we were able to record that in the 1980s. Now it is interesting to see how the younger or educated generations’ memory making has evolved, and that is interesting to compare with the stories that we had gathered. The new media forms of memory, like WhatsApp, Facebook, these are cutting edge, and how these younger generations interact in the virtual world is certainly new.

Carola: I think that is where our work on the book intersects with Stan’s work on his film. And we all speak more of remembering than of memory in order to emphasise the active practice aspects of it.

Stan: There is something I would like to add here: I still remember one of the interventions in my Colloquium, when someone said that in the European context of family history you are usually focusing on conflicts. But in my way of seeing things I try to elude all conflicts in my film. Yes, I think that if we want to do something for the future, it is a question of managing the conflicts. In order to make the glass not half empty, but half full, because we are going to give something to the youngsters.

The meaning of family

Daniel: In December, we asked each of you about the individual meaning of family, what does family mean for you? Now, a few months later, with all that reflection, all that material: would you still give the same answer?

Stan: I think that in the course of time, I have been able to strengthen my view of the family. During a discussion with Gesine Krüger, one of our guests, when we discussed the family genealogy being like a tree or like a road, I said that for me, the family is a road. This road is adventurous. We never know what will happen. But we hope that what will happen will be good. For me, family is individual seeds that will develop as we are going, that will promote a kind of tree that bears fruits. For me this is what family means. How will the family go through the years, decades, centuries, and where will it be in five centuries? So what will be the family?

Daniel: Is it fair to say that your feeling of responsibility and agency within the family has gotten stronger?

Stan: Yes.

Daniel: What do you think, Isidore?

Isidore: I said at that time [in December] that family for me was the daily interaction, it was an interactive process. I still think it is a social process, but very contested. It is a bundle of relations and ties, but these are continually negotiated, they are not straightforward. My view has evolved in the context of how I was raised and the way I looked at it as a member of the family. But later on, I would look at it as an anthropology scholar. Our interactions here in Berlin as focus group members and family members seem to concretise what I was talking about. I mean, we look at each other as “agentic” beings, and the daily interaction is very real.

Carola: It is quite interesting that with respect to Daniel’s question we all answer that there is continuity in our approaches. This seems to contrast with what we said with regard to the evolvement of the project. But maybe this is not self-contradictory. I would also insist that my initial idea of what the family was or is has remained very much the same. Family is a web of relations that is activated at certain periods by certain people with certain agendas and relegated into the background at certain other periods. I think I had few surprises in this respect. But what was exciting for me while working on this project was how much the issue of my German family came up in dreams, reflections, and conversations. I developed a desire to use some of the questions we have been using to investigate the history and remembering in the African family to work on a book on my German family. I was surprised at how similar the ways of making and unmaking family relations were, cross-culturally, this way of solidifying the web of relations or also making it more fluid and more negotiable, both ways. That was for me a surprise. I am careful about saying universal, I don’t believe so much in universals, but there were comparable ways of doing that.

The larger story

Alice: I want to raise a question as to the context of your work and invite you to think beyond that realm of practices of relating within your particular family, and even beyond the region. Can you link your study with more transnational, global processes—whether it is modernity, modes of governance, modes of citizenship, modes of understanding the self, modes of understanding what kinship is, what memory is, what family is, that reverberate?

Isidore: I think we are trying to do this. Before we even got into the project, Carola said: let us leave the book writing for later and first try to see what is out there. The library was very helpful, and we got a lot of reading from family history, family sociology, anthropology of kinship and the new kinship studies. And what was especially interesting was the transnational dimension. A lot of the things that we read about seventeenth-, sixteenth-century France and Britain, about the transformation of the family, were very interesting. We saw, for example, that notions such as that industrialisation necessarily results in the nuclear family, that certain societies are predisposed to develop the nuclear family while families in non-industrial societies were always extended—we saw that this was not a given. The conclusion we came to was that the African family is not unique. We also found that there is a clear transnational dimension. We noticed that certain global developments, for example the Great Depression in the 1930s or the Second World War, shaped family relationships on the ground in West Africa. For example, when people migrated in the 1930s from Northern Ghana to the South, whether they went to work on a farm or in the gold mines was determined by global developments.

Carola: I would take Alice’s question at several levels. First, it is fascinating to ask to what extent larger developments in the region and beyond enter into processes of family members’ remembering, to what extent they are consciously being taken up, thematised and discussed. Our discovery is that, actually, family memory is not punctuated by the big transitions in the wider history. Independence, for instance, or even the advent of colonialism are not decisive forces that are being reflected in intimate or less intimate memories in the family. What were central in family memory, by contrast, were Christianisation and the conversion story. A second aspect is, of course, the big structural forces that changed the entire family economy and that affected the way families are being made or unmade. That is important, and we have to find a way of bringing that into our book narrative. And a third aspect is that we locate our project in a particular moment of memory politics in Ghana and beyond. It is not for nothing that a number of families in Southern Ghana have started to found family foundations in the past two or so decades. This is premised on, first, that the family is an important, and even political, resource in Ghana—if you want to make a career in the political sphere you need a good family name. Secondly, we are witnessing a period of neoliberal global dispersal of family members, through challenges of their jobs, of careers etc. There is some continuity—families try to conceive and project continuities very often—but this continuity has been challenged in subtle, indirect ways. This seems to result in a sense of nostalgia, a feeling among urban family members that “we are no longer living in the village, many old technologies are getting lost, we are losing touch with our culture, people are dying; we are no longer using the traditional instruments”.

Stan: I think there are two dimensions of the question, a temporal dimension and a spatial one. In terms of time, yes, at the beginning I was trying to use these colonial facts to build the script, but finally they were not very consistent. So I shifted to religion, because religion has really moved the family forwards, and then, later on, education. More recently, there is an era of diversification; we are now at a higher point of diversification, and maybe it will go higher or wider, but at least we can consider it as a very crucial point. The second dimension is space. I laid out a large map to see where the family has been, as far as dispersal is concerned. And as far as I myself am concerned, I have no roots, neither in Ghana nor in Burkina Faso. In Burkina, I have a place in Bobo Dioulasso and a place in Ouagadougou and in Ouessa and so on. One of the concepts, which is interesting for me: the world is for us. (All laughing).

Interviews, childhood memories and more

Daniel: My impression from listening to you is that the scope of your project has increased, not only in terms of the quantity, but also the variety of material which you draw on.

Stan: As far as the material for the film is concerned, there is a real diversity, ranging from the still photographs, the sounds, recorded sounds of interviews or songs or even some requiems, the video recordings that I did or my colleagues did for me for the last thirty years now and now the complementary shots. At first I did not want to be part of the film, but as time passed I began to think that you are right, being part of the film as a narrator is giving a kind of soul to the film.

Daniel: How about you, Isidore?

Isidore: We decided to use the conventional interviews that we conducted in the 1980s and later on, but also family objects, memorabilia, baptismal cards and there are some lieux de mémoire, the place of the cemetery. At the homecoming festival there were plans to develop the family cemetery. And the family shrine, for the unconverted. What was very clarifying was that it is not just the oral tradition, but that we should pay attention to these objects. I think that is the new…

Carola: I think you forgot to mention one of the most important materials: your own childhood memories.

Isidore: Yes.

Carola: Bringing in Isidore’s and Stan’s childhood memories was very important. My interviews were, in some way, formalised situations. They do feed into a particular genre that exists, the “educative talk”. My interviews were very much shaped by this genre of education of family members and making moral exhortations. But we felt that it was too limited if we only relied on this kind of tape-recorded, translated interviews.

Daniel: I would say that in different ways all three of you discovered yourself as material for your inquiry, in the way that you [Stan] are putting yourself in the film and in the project, in the way that you [Isidore] are discovering your childhood memories as a valuable source of information on remembering and in the way that you [Carola] have even in your dreams come to engage with your past and the German part of your family.

The focus group as part of the extended family

Alice: Finally, we were wondering what kind of interest and role the family is actually taking in relation to the project.

Isidore: Well, I think we underscored that people were conscious that we were doing something on family history. And people were eager to shape it or to be part of it. They have some interest in the project, but also some ambivalence. Interest in the sense that they are very happy that we are writing something on the family and it is going to be a historical record. But the ambivalence comes in with regard to the end product. Nobody knows what we will come out with. And I think that uncertainty may be a matter of concern for some members of the family. Will this be something that will be a very positive thing presented to the younger generation to be nurturing or filling the half-glass? Or will this be something that can unmake the family?

Stan: I think Alice was also asking about the relations among us here…

Isidore: Well, this is the first time that we [the focus group] have interacted closely, and it has been interesting to discover ourselves, to get to know each other. As for Stan, we never grew up together. This is the first time we have lived together. As for Carola, I have known her since the 1980s, but it was always only some few weeks. And I come back to my original idea of the family that it has to do with lived experiences; so I see that there is some sense of relatedness, our co-experience has concretised some of these reflections.

Stan: As far our interaction is concerned, I will also say that it has been a good opportunity for us to meet and, as Isidore says, I really don’t know the members of the family. I was posted as a student in Ouagadougou, going back home during the vacations for one month and then going back to school. I first met my elder brother, the bishop, when I was six years old, and I asked my mother who was this man, and she said he is my brother, and I said, “Oh!” I was very proud. So that is the same with the members of the family. So sometimes when I want to have some information I ask Isidore, “Do you know this one? Who is that?” He always explains to me who are some members of the family. So this is very interesting because I have been able to learn a lot about the family, about Isidore also.
I also discovered Isidore’s and Carola’s commitment to anthropology. Because when they are talking of anthropology I would say, “Oh, these people,” instead of talking about how to strategise politically; or in communication, they are always saying… But what do you need to see these marginal people? It is not important! But this is anthropology. And I now understand what the importance is. And that is why I say that the film will also take into account these different voices, this polyphony. There was flexibility with our discussions. At first, they had their idea of the book, as they were saying: history, and I said, “No, I’m not interested in the past, I am more concerned with the future.” And finally we came out with a common idea of remembrance, but what remembrance? Remembrance for the future! We came together with a common idea of the film and the book. As for the extended family, the main impact that will come out of this work is the archive. Making an archive of the family, everybody is concerned. The last time when I was home, everybody was trying to give me their old snapshots or photos. Having an archive will be very important, and we are going to work on it.

Carola: I think one thing that kept us going together over the time was a good sense of humour that we all share. I think that is very important. The second thing I have noticed is that there is an interesting way of creating “we”, “they”, “I”, and it is shifting. It is not as easy as “I and they”, I as an outside member, they as inside members. Stan, you have said, “You anthropologists,” and you are talking of the two of us, Isidore and me, as people with a shared perspective, and we say, “You the mythmaker”. I think that is interesting. There are some facts, like the responsibilities you have to your own family. But in addition to these non-negotiable facts, so to speak, there is a lot of fluidity in how we play out who is who.
What we have come to discover, and that is a point that connects with Stan’s archive idea: we said that we are writing a history of remembering and not a history of the family, we are not doing an authoritative account. Question mark: Don’t we have any agenda? Exclamation mark: Yes, we do have an agenda! And that is to keep the remembering process as open as possible. There are currently strong attempts to create an authoritative version. We are almost sure that these attempts will not be successful, not because we are there, but because there are too many dissenting voices in the family. But there is streamlining and enhancing the public image of the family at work. And I think our agenda is to keep these dissenting voices in the picture and not allow them to be completely erased, but, as Terence Ranger put it, to pay attention to “the casualties of progress”. You, Stan, speak of the “road”, fine, but there are casualties of progress and let us remember them. So at the end, we do have an active stance in the politics of remembering, and I think as you now open up to have more voices in the film, you are also coming into that fold.

Daniel: I think we have exhausted the questions that we asked previously in December. And I am thrilled to see that some of them were actually answered in quite the same way, and others have fundamentally evolved. I see that as a sign of a reflective process, that even though you were open to critique, you still confirm and evolve certain positions, and then added new inspirations. In this sense, the focus group was a big success.


Citation: Carola Lentz, Isidore Lobnibe, and Stanislas Meda, From History to Memory. A Wissenschaftskolleg Focus Group’s Views of a West African Family – After Six Months Work, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.08.2018,

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2018, 14. August). From History to Memory. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 29. Februar 2024, von

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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